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A Cringe and a Challenge

By October 16, 2004 No Comments

In yet another cringe-inducing moment for Christianity, a sports radio host here in central Iowa opined on the air that a Jewish baseball player conflicted about playing on Yom Kippur could resolve his problem by converting to Christianity.

Steve Deace’s suggestion, made on station KXNO (AM-1460), was directed at Los Angeles Dodger slugger Shawn Green. Because his team was locked in a tight pennant race with San Francisco and was scheduled to play the Giants on the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, Green’s dilemma attracted more than its share of attention, even here in the Cub-besotted Midwest.

Mr. Deace decided to offer his counsel a few days before the holiday, saying:

Here is the solution. Shawn Green accepting the fulfillment of his Jewish heritage, recognizing his Messiah is Jesus Christ, therefore he is the atonement for his sins, no further need to jump through hoops, no further need to recognize or go through observances or rituals or rites. But instead going forward from this point, henceforth, in his life without any guilt or shame because his Messiah took all the blame. And then you go out and play the best you can against the Giants and try to win the pennant. That is a solution. (Reported in the Des Moines Register, September 25, 2004.)

He then added somewhat defensively, “But I doubt it is a solution you are going to hear anyone else bring up.”

Pointing out the theological problems here is so easy as to seem unsporting. Mr. Deace imagines that he understands Judaism, but in actuality he sees it–through a filter of evangelical Christian bias–as merely a religion of works done to curry favor with God. Hence, the desire to keep Yom Kippur can only stem, in his mind, from a felt need to “jump through hoops.” Correspondingly, he understands Christianity as a religion that obliges its faithful to nothing beyond celebrating their freedom from “guilt and shame” through the vicarious atonement of the Messiah. The roster of Christian athletes who have agonized over competing on Sunday must puzzle him.

And then there’s the “attitude problem.” Those who offer public advice to perfect strangers on personal matters will be perceived by many as impertinent busybodies. Those who do so in the name of Christian witness tar their fellow believers with that same brush. It’s not hard to find people at my church-related college who view evangelical Christians as smug, hectoring know-it-alls, impervious to–perhaps even thriving on–the disapproval of their secular neighbors. That’s a stereotype; but stereotypes depend on confirming examples, and Mr. Deace has provided yet another one to the arsenal.

Frustrating as it is for Christians of a different bent from Mr. Deace to have their faith identified with his views, it may be hard to avoid–for the same reason that allows Dispensationalists to tell the world that their cobbled-together scenario of the endtimes represents the Christian view. It is no such thing, of course, although it is a view held by some Christians. But their view has the advantage of giving its adherents something to say, a story to tell, and a sense of urgency about telling it. I think my eschatology is a lot sounder than theirs, frankly; but I’d be hard put to write a novel based on it, much less an endless series of best-sellers, with a film deal in the bag. So their voices get heard, while their critical fellow believers appear to mumble and dither.

Similarly, although Mr. Deace may not know what he is talking about, he does his talking with assurance and conviction, while those with a more complex vision find themselves tonguetied. A more subtle view of Jewish-Christian relations won’t fit into a sound-bite any more than a non-millennial eschatology will. Recognition of ambiguity, candid admission of the limits of our knowledge, willingness to live with unresolved tension–these can muddy the communicative waters, sometimes to the point of opacity.

This is not Mr. Deace’s fault, nor is it an excuse for the reticence of Christians who differ from him. But it does pose a simple challenge to those who seek to represent the Christian faith in a thoughtful, open and responsible way: Read and listen well, then write and speak well, out of the heart of the Gospel. Represent the Christian faith with humility, but also with cogency. To those who don’t share your faith, have the mind of Christ–not sitting in god-like judgment, but taking the form of a servant (Philippians 2:6ff.). Make it known, gently and with a flavor of wit, Who it is that you serve.

This is the goal we set for ourselves at Perspectives, and it is the conversation that we invite you, our readers, to join.

David Timmer teaches in the field of religion at Central College in Pella, Iowa, and co-edits Perspectives .
David Timmer

David Timmer

David Timmer recently retired from teaching Religion at Central College in Pella, Iowa.